Nora Wendl: "I Listened for the Echoes of Your Voice"
An installation by Nora Wendl that combines photographs, text, and sound as an experiential consideration of the contested and, arguably lacking, historical account of Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a woman who commissioned Mies van der Rohe to build a glass house for her. A book about Farnsworth, written by Wendl, is forthcoming.
I Listened for the Echoes of Your Voice
In early August, I signed a contract with the administration of the Farnsworth House, which is under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. On August 31, 2017, I would be allowed to collect sound in the all-glass Farnsworth House, located in rural Plano, Illinois. We negotiated an affordable rate for two hours of sound collection, far below the standard $5,000 per hour to inhabit the house—a fee that helps the administration pay for costly preservation costs, but is not affordable for most people.
I had imagined collecting the sounds of domestic inhabitation—recreating, in sound, the inhabitation of Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who lived in the house from 1951 to 1971. The history of Dr. Farnsworth’s inhabitation of this house is often convoluted: though she commissioned this ambitious house from German émigré architect Mies van der Rohe, she is often simply remembered for the rumor that she had a romance with him, and the fact that the two ultimately had a fallout in court over costs associated with the house. Her inhabitation of the house has always been contested by historians, who determine that her very presence in the house—her furniture, and her habits (including heavy smoking and collecting poodles) —were at odds with the austere modern structure. A tourist destination today, the house has been furnished according to Mies’ vision—filled with furniture of his design.
However, in the language of the contract, I learned that I would not be allowed to do anything remotely domestic: I could not make a cup of tea (kitchen equipment could not be used, the water in the house is not potable); I could not have a cigarette, even on the porch (as Dr. Farnsworth would have); I would not be allowed to do even the simplest and most common thing—flush a toilet or run water. And I must wear blue surgical booties to protect the white travertine floors.
My desire to collect domestic sounds seemed thwarted until I realized that there was a loophole: because the house is rented out for weddings (to raise funds for preservation costs), I could contract a violinist to play a piece in the house—one Dr. Farnsworth herself played—and I could make and enjoy a martini. I realized this when my partner and I were in Des Moines, Iowa, on our way across the Midwest to Chicago. I called the Director of the Farnsworth House one day before we arrived and told him I’d like to make a martini for Edith. “You want to make a martini for Edith…” he said, pausing. I explained that I would drink it myself, but it was conceived as an “offering” to her. He agreed to allow me to do this.
Through friends, I was introduced to a talented violinist, N. Tara Waite, who performed Vitali’s Chaconne. To record this sound, I used binaural microphones, one placed in each of my ears, with windshields over them. The sound inside the house was overwhelming, as glass is highly reflective of sound. I stood out on the covered, but open, porch of the house to listen. Here, the sound of the violin (behind me, in the glass house) is overlaid with the sound of the landscape—which originally drew Farnsworth to this place—and the thundering, hollow sound of the freeway, which is very close to the house. This is the sound that you hear on the record. The record that was produced by a firm in Amsterdam out of the .wav file I sent them; there will be only 25 records made, so that there is a limited edition of these rare sounds of a rare place.
The sounds of the natural landscape and of the freeway are a reminder that there is a futility to attempting to preserve architecture. The house will eventually be overtaken by the Fox River, which regularly floods—the result of the outward expansion and paving over of the land between Chicago and this rural town. This record is a temporary stop-gap measure to preserve the house for just a moment, in a most ephemeral way.
In the afternoon, I made and consumed a martini in the glass house under the watchful gaze of a tour guide who acted as a guard. Fortified by vodka, and emboldened by the guard who was pulled into the world of her phone and was too distracted to monitor me, I walked around in the house while my partner, David, photographed my occupations. With only an hour to occupy the house, and a guard timing us, these photographs are titled with the minute and second that they occurred. These occupations were in (soft) violation of the contract I had signed, but are a more authentic record of occupation—sitting in the Barcelona chair designed by Mies to read fragments of poetry written by Dr. Farnsworth, opening and closing kitchen drawers, and ultimately laying down on the bed—designed by Mies’ grandson, Dirk Lohan. These are perhaps the last spontaneous human moments that will ever be recorded in this glass house, and in them I listened for the elusive sounds of a woman alone, doing simple things in a glass house.
- Nora Wendl
This project was made possible through the generous support of David Bridwell, Sonyl Nagale, Mitchell Squire, Nancy Zastudil, and a Small Research Grant provided through the UNM School of Architecture & Planning’s Office of the Associate Dean for Research.